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Death of 24 soldiers spurs debate about war



JTA – Twenty-four Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip in two separate incidents on Monday, 22 January, marking the deadliest day for Israel since the Hamas attacks on 7 October.

In one incident, 19 reservists were killed when Hamas gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at two buildings, resulting in their collapse. Another RPG hit a tank guarding the site, killing two soldiers. The buildings, located within half a mile (0.8km) from the border, were laden with mines by Israeli troops as part of a strategy to demolish Hamas sites and establish a buffer zone.

“An RPG launched by Hamas hit a residential complex where dozens of our soldiers were operating. Initial estimates suggest that the RPG triggered the explosives inside, causing a catastrophic collapse,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement.

The IDF announced plans to form a special investigative team to probe the incident thoroughly, with the aim of preventing similar occurrences.

In a separate incident that occurred earlier on Monday, three officers in the Paratroopers Brigade were killed and another seriously injured during a battle in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.

As rescue operations at the site of the RPG attack extended for hours on Monday, a wave of rumours and unverified reports, including conjectures about missing and potentially abducted soldiers, swept across Israel.

IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari has since appealed for restraint and sensitivity. “Behind the rumours are families experiencing their worst hour,” he said on 23 January.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Monday as “one of the most difficult days” since the outbreak of the war. He said he was grieving with the families of the soldiers, “whose lives will change forever”.

The dead were all reservists, ranging from 22 to 40 and coming from all over the country, including major cities and small towns, and from both religious and secular backgrounds. One was from the Bedouin Arab city of Rahat.

News of the latest deaths has fuelled an ongoing debate among Israeli citizens over the objectives of the military’s ground offensive. Three months into the ground invasion, 219 soldiers have been killed while the army has rescued only one living hostage during combat operations and hasn’t dismantled Hamas, Israel’s two stated goals. More than 100 hostages were released late last year as part of a temporary ceasefire deal. Israeli troops mistakenly killed three hostages in another incident.

This week, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, Gadi Eisenkot, whose own son and nephew are among the dead soldiers, said he believed the objectives couldn’t be achieved.

Monday’s incident marked the second major occurrence of mines being laid out by the IDF exploding prematurely. Earlier this month, six reservists from the engineering corps were killed when a tunnel rigged with mines detonated in Gaza in an incident that the IDF said appeared not to have involved an attack by Hamas.

“These events are a major heartbreak. We love our soldiers. Each one here has his own family that now doesn’t have a father,” Gil Lewinsky, from central Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). “I hope for the sake of the families and also for society at large that there’s some accountability.”

The families of the 136 hostages still held by Hamas have become increasingly critical of the IDF’s approach, saying it endangers their loved ones, and have urged Israel’s government instead to work on securing a deal for their release via protests and a broad public campaign. On Monday, family members of several hostages interrupted a parliament meeting to demand action from legislators and were forcibly removed.

For the first time within Israel since the war’s start, social media and news show pundits are abuzz with people questioning the wisdom of the IDF’s strategy. Some worry that a shift to more surgical military activity, announced amid pressure from the United States to stem civilian casualties, carries increased risk for soldiers.

“The soldiers are abandoned in the field, targets are loaded with explosives and booby-trapped, all because the Air Force won’t attack if there’s the possibility of Gazan civilians in the area,” Oryan Levy told JTA.

According to an analysis by The New York Times, the pace of casualties in Gaza has slowed from more than 300 per day in late October to roughly 150 per day this week. Overall, more than 25 000 people have been killed in Gaza, a mix of combatants and civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Hamas’s 7 October invasion of Israel killed about 1 200 people and took about 250 hostages.

Marina Bibi, a friend of one of the fallen soldiers, Sergeant Major (reserve) Mark Kononovich, 35, told JTA that though the soldiers were in “imminent danger” at any given time in Gaza, she wasn’t sure there was another way to fight. Bibi described Kononovich as an “amazing man and father, salt of the earth”. Kononovich, from the central Israeli city of Herzliya, left behind a wife and three children.

A note written by Master Sergeant (reserve) Elkana Vizel, 35, a squad commander from Bnei Dekalim in southern Israel who was killed on Monday, also made the rounds on social media.

“If you’re reading this, it means something happened to me. First of all, if I was kidnapped by Hamas I’m asking that you refrain from any deal releasing terrorists in exchange for my release,” Vizel, who is a rabbi, began his letter.

“Maybe I fell in battle. When a soldier falls in battle, it’s sad. But I ask you to be happy. We’re a generation of redemption!”

He concluded his letter by noting that an injury from the 2014 war in Gaza had exempted him from participating in this war. “I don’t for a second regret coming back to fight,” he wrote. “On the contrary, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Another viral post came from someone who had volunteered to make meals for the troops, as part of a sweeping support effort, and had been assigned to the unit that suffered heavy losses on Monday.

“Not simple to organise for a unit over a long period of time and wake up one morning to realise that half of them are no longer here. From 50 soldiers, 21 were killed yesterday, and it just tears my heart to pieces,” the post said. “It reminds me how important our work is. To know that these soldiers ate well, that they knew we cared about them and felt spoiled by some home-cooked comfort food with the taste of love.”

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